A Dog, a Treasured Tree
and My Boyhood Home

Jumbo was a "Water Spaniel". He arrived early in my life as gift from a friend of the family. He was jet black, with a coat of long curly hair. He sported a moist tongue encased for most part in a halo of halitosis of an extraordinarily pungent nature. The ends of his long ears were often encrusted in the remains of his last meal. His often rampant libido occasionally caused embarrassment as well as jealousy, especially in the case of any dog that dared venture into his orbit. But he was also an obsequious animal when confronted with anything that he could not intimidate, especially my father, whom he regarded as the leader of his pack and the authority in all things.

This dog of uncertain mood and character, was definitely (especially as far as my mother was concerned) Dad's dog. A feisty beast, he was always ready to pick a quarrel with any other male dog and to defend his patch. But Jumbo was also a good family pet who withstood the constant petting and teasing foisted on him with patience and forbearance for most of the time. Occasionally he would growl and snap to indicate he had had enough but for the most part he was a lovable pet.

My relationship with Jumbo ranged from slobbering love through petting to incessant teasing leading sometimes to terror and the pain of a well deserved bite. He regarded me as just a minor member of Dad’s pack and, for the most part a confounded nuisance as I liked to tease him. But occasionally he saw some advantage in my company especially when playing with a ball or going for a swim.

He was a natural swimmer and did not need to be invited twice to enter the water. Except on one occasion when we travelled down to Acapulco for the annual family holiday. The drive lasted over 12 hours along the twisting rough road. It got hotter as we travelled from the cool climate of the Mexican Plateau down to the hot the tropics of the Pacific coast.

We all suffered from the discomfort of car sickness and the heat, but none more so than Jumbo. He sweltered in his black thick coat and his engorged tongue hung from his open jaws like a great wet fleshy sponge spraying slobber everywhere. Yet, when we stopped for a rest he still had the energy and the wherewithal to leap out and leave his mark on every available bush nearby. His supplies of liquid seemed inexhaustible!

When we finally reached the beach in Acapulco Jumbo saw the blue water and leapt from the car and headed straight for what he thought was to be a cooling swim and a thirst quenching drink. Poor dog…it took him what seemed an age to realize that the water was quite undrinkable. He staggered onto the beach and started retching and heaving to get rid of the nasty stuff. By the time he had finished he was a sorry sight. Shortly after some kind soul produced a bowl of fresh water to revive him. Even then he took time to convince himself that this supply was alright. But as for the sea, we could not convince him that it was alright to swim in for a long time. As for drinking the stuff, well he never attempted that again!

The conifer stood as our only tree in the front yard. It seemed to have been there forever, somehow surviving the harsh climate and the never ending dust from the stone crushers that ground the rocky silver ore into powder on the other side of the high stone wall that separated home from the mill. The trunk of the tree split into two above the ground and continued into a sparse set of branches and needle like leaves and just a few cones to emphasize its scrawny appearance. It rose to a height of about 30 feet, its colour an indeterminate grey, caused no doubt by the layers of dust that had accumulated over the years. It had survived many repetitions of the heavy downpours of the short rainy season and the long dry spells that followed. By some miracle it also survived repeated use by Jumbo as a convenient marking post. Perhaps his frequent ministrations were the real key to its survival, at least during his life time.

That tree provided a refuge for me. Its split trunk was just right for nailing half a dozen rungs on which to start a climb. Above the last rung were a few well placed stumps of sawn off branches that made it possible to reach the lowest limbs of the sparse canopy. Here someone had built a small platform which served as a place on which to hide and spy the land as the local pirate king or Wolf pack leader. But as a hiding place it was not much use when Jumbo was around. I think he was jealous of my ability to get to the top and refused to play the role of subservient and silent guard dog. Although there was no way he could climb the tree, he was glad to patrol the bottom and bark to give me away to any one who might be interested, especially my father.

The tree was at least 50 years old by the time we moved into the house in 1939. La Casa Nueva had been built by the mining company for its middle management staff probably in the 1920’s so the tree must have been the older of the two. The house was made mainly of brick and stone with a corrugated iron roof. Originally painted a bright red, the condition of the roof had deteriorated under the ministrations of the harsh climate and bright sun to a dungy, dull colour that just approximated to red.

Access to the front door was up a set of some 20 concrete steps with rounded solid balustrades of the same material. The front door gave access to the small dining room and to the right of that was the "sala" or living room. This too was small and had like the rest of the house a wooden floor that had a polished surface, marvellous for skidding on when nobody else was there to say No!

It was a small compact house with a corridor leading from the dining room past the bathroom and pantry on one side and two bedrooms on the other, to the kitchen. The kitchen gave access to a very small yard that backed onto the high stone wall of the mill and provided room for a small workshop and servant accommodation, and another small bedroom. These small out buildings were all made of corrugated iron, red roofed like the house but with external walls painted a dingy green.

Home was a noisy place. But it was not because we were a rowdy family. It was noisy because the ore crushers next door worked day and night and produced a constant roar. That roar was punctuated occasionally by the rumble of iron balls used to pulverise the ore as these were delivered about once a week by trucks that dumped them down chutes that backed onto the house.

Another source of noise was the frequent thunderstorms of the rainy season that often brought hail and high winds. The noise of the icy stones on the corrugated roof was so loud that it drowned out everything else including the crushers. These storms were an excitement and a welcome one especially if I was tucked up in bed and nice and warm!

Yet another source of noise was the sound of real stones falling on the roof. The road passed the house wound its way up the steep hill in front then through a "U" turn ran above the house towards the head frame of the San Juan mine shaft. Small local boys used to delight in throwing stones from that road onto the roofs of our house and the neighbours’ intending to and frequently succeeding in scaring and annoying the occupants.

But the most memorable noise was Jumbo’s howl.

Every day there would be, regular as clockwork, the noise of the hooters of the Loreto Mill and San Juan mine. These, day in - night out, signalled the intervals between working shifts. But they were also used to signal emergencies and other events of note. Like VE Day in May 1945 when they hooted for hours on end signalling the end of the war.

For some reason the mill shifts differed from those of the mine by one hour and so the deep throaty noise of the mill hooter would sound at 6, midday, 6 again and midnight. The higher pitched mine hooter sounded an hour later. So the day and night were punctuated by this regular hooting and that governed the ebb and flow of humanity that worked in this energetic place. These hooters governed Dad's working days and his comings and goings went on like clockwork to this constant daily rhythm. But for me the noise of the hooters, like the rumble of the crushers, was part of normality and somehow was comforting and reassuring.

The problem was that Jumbo hated being shut up in the kitchen at night. He also hated the mine hooter. For some reason it was only the mine hooter and only when he was shut up in the kitchen that he gave vent to his feelings. Almost like clockwork when the mine hooter went off at night, Jumbo would start to howl and he'd go on howling long after the hooter had stopped. This often ended when, with a cry of rage, Dad would wake up, climb out of bed, go into the kitchen and chastise the dog. No doubt Jumbo did it to get attention and to protest about the unfairness of banishment but he never learnt and the routine was often repeated…sad really. I had a certain fellow feeling for Jumbo's woes.

But for all its smallness and noisiness that house gave me a sense of security, warmth and welcome that has been hard to replace ever since I left in 1946. I did not see home again for another 12 years. It had not changed much in that time except that Jumbo had gone. He died at the ripe old doggy age of about 14 when he collapsed climbing the steep hill to the house. Always the loyal dog he was following his master’s footsteps home when he decided that enough was enough.

Dad buried Jumbo on the slope below the conifer tree. That tree survives him still, with its wooden rungs and platform in place. So it managed to do without Jumbo’s ministrations after all.

Copyright M.& M.M. Ough Dealy 2007-2010